The creature was the dust-colored dog that I had wished would never again return to my dreams. “Well, this isn’t a dream, is it?” I imagined Nader delighting in the sinister loophole.
“Chekheh!” I yelled at the dog. “Chekheh” is what you tell an animal when you want it to go away. The dog, already startled, scampered away. But I, who had had enough of the Jinn’s mind games, gave chase yelling, cursing, and throwing rocks. Unlike my dream, where my legs went rubbery, I bounded in wide, rapid leaps, and it was the dog that dragged. I almost caught up several times, but anytime I got to within a rock’s throw, fear gave the edge to the dog. We ran like this for a long time until another boy who saw me chasing the dog joined me out of nowhere. Soon there were four or five children in the pack, pursuing the lone dog out of our territory.
Driven by rage, I must have run for hours because it was twilight when the chase began, and by now it was full daylight. My companions had dropped out, long exhausted. The dog, also at the limit of its endurance, suddenly sat down, panting. As I staggered close for a clean shot, I saw on its belly why I had been able to outrun the animal. She had been nursing puppies. That’s why she had risked coming so close to a residence in search of food. But my arm and the stone at the end of it had endured too much for their one purpose. I raised the rock. Then I heard a yelp and saw the dog roll in a cloud of dust, then scramble up and begin to limp away on three legs. I picked up a bigger rock and was about to throw it when a voice behind me said, “Don’t you see it has surrendered?”
I turned around. It was one of Nader’s curious companions. He was on a bicycle.
“These dogs are vermin,” I said. “They eat kids.”
He said, “Do you want to make orphans on Ashura?”
He had an accent, as though his family were from out of town. When he said “Don’t you see it has surrendered,” it sounded like he said, “Don’t you see that it is a Muslim.” It’s true that “Muslim” means “one who has surrendered,” but Iranians rarely use the word in that odd way. And “Muslim” is certainly never applied to an animal. Unless, of course, it is a Muslim Jinn who has shape shifted. When I think about his accent, he might have said “Mazloom.” “Don’t you see she is a Mazloom?” That is a word I had heard many times on Ashura. It means one who has been denied mercy. On this day it specifically refers to the third Shiite Imam, Hussein. This Imam and a small band of his followers were defeated by the rival Sunni army on the plains of Karbala in Iraq. He was beheaded after the battle. As the story goes, Hussein’s infant son was denied water before being killed. For a desert people, ending a life while it still thirsts is an unforgivable lack of mercy. Even animals are given a drink before being butchered.
Nader’s friend took my rock from me. “Go home now,” he said, and sped away on his bike. As soon as both he and the dog had gone, I realized that I no longer knew where home was.
I had been running towards the mountains, so I thought if I walked with the mountains to my back, I should find familiar territory. But by about midday, I still didn’t know where I was. And I was thirsty.
Then I heard a sound like a dam breaking. Whoosh! Except that the dam kept breaking over and over again. Whoosh! Whoosh! It was the sound of cymbals from the procession of mourners, commemorating Ashura. Hundreds of men, naked from the waist up, were walking in a trance, their eyes glazed and focused far away. They chanted in a chorus to the rhythm of cymbals, and to the colors of green and black banners. The leader yelled, “Woe unto us, Hussein is gone.” And the chorus responded, “Where was their mercy for the Mazloom of Karbala?”
I noticed among the mourners a young man who was limping. As he went by me, his eyes suddenly snapped to focus on me. I did not acknowledge him, as I had never seen him before. But he broke away from the chorus and came toward me, as though he recognized me. Perhaps he was a friend of one of my older cousins who had pointed me out to him in the market place. Then again, perhaps he didn’t like that cousin and was about to take it out on me. But not on Ashura, I thought. Not if he is in the chorus purifying himself.
“Do you wish to join the dasteh?” he asked.
“Maybe,” I said relieved. I didn’t know where else to go, I was lost. “Do you know any of my cousins?”
“Your cousin Nader and I play on the same soccer team,” he said, pointing to his limping leg. “You and your mom came to watch us play one day. We tied two to one, remember?”
“How can you tie two to one?” I said, starting to get the joke when I remembered that Nader’s team had lost that game.
“No smiling today. It’s Ashura. You’re supposed to be sad. Do you want to be part of the dasteh or not?”
“Very well,” he said. “First you have to tear your shirt.” He yanked off some of my buttons and put them in my shirt pocket. “Your mom can sew them back on later,” he said. Then he reached down and grabbed a fistful of dust and poured it on my head. Standing back to admire his work he said, “Excellent, now run all the way to the back of the dasteh with the other kids, and they’ll show you how to beat your chest and chant.” I thanked him for tearing my shirt and putting dirt on my head, then I ran back and joined the procession.
Soon we merged with another dasteh from another mosque. The men in this dasteh had torn their shirts on the back and were flagellating themselves with bundled chains. Three steps of chanting was followed by a fourth step accented by the crash of metal rings against flesh. Mourners with shaved heads tapped their heads in unison with the flat of their machetes. Occasionally, one of them ignited with passion and turned the blade side on his scalp. His fellows jumped to stop him, getting blood all over them.
As we marched, another huge dasteh, complete with chains, machetes, effigies, horses, and headless actors, joined our dasteh, which was now a turbulent river of men thousands strong. We all walked in this way, thirsty, hungry, tired, aching, and bloody toward a distant mosque still a few hours away.
Finally we reached the mosque, and fell tired on the carpeted stone floor. Attendants carrying large pitchers of sweetened water poured drinks for us. As helpers fussed over us, someone stuck a heavy copper plate at me. “Here kid, go get yourself some food,” he said.
I remember the aroma of the mounds of saffron rice steaming on copper trays, each two arm lengths across. Beside them were soot-covered cauldrons full of delicious stew, bubbling with herbs and fresh meat. Very fresh meat. Just outside the mosque walls, some men were still cleaning the skins of the tens of lamb that had been sacrificed for the occasion. I sat on a beautiful carpet that covered a small stone platform inside the mosque and ate with my dusty hands, of the rice and of the sacrifice. Then, exhausted, I fell into a deep sleep.
When I woke up, it was dark. The mosque was empty. Everyone must have thought I was with someone else, and had left. It surprised me that Nader’s friend who let me join the dasteh had not woken me up, though I didn’t remember seeing him after we reached the mosque. A soft clanging came from the direction of the kitchen in the mosque basement. At first I was frightened. Clanging in the bathhouse after hours indicated the presence of Jinn. But this was a mosque. Ill intentioned Jinn had no business here. Someone was washing dishes. Then the clanging stopped. Soon I saw a boy of about twelve emerge. He was surprised to see me.
“Hey boy, go home. I am about to close the gate,” he said.
“I don’t know how to get home. I’m lost.”
“Hey boy, what mosque do you live near?”
“I don’t know. My mom calls it the nearby mosque. What mosque is this?”
The boy laughed, “This must be the Far Away Mosque.”
When I started to cry, he said, “Hey boy, that’s all right, your mother will find you. Every Ashura some kids get lost in this mosque and their mothers come and get them. Just stand on that big rock outside the mosque, and someone will show up for you.”
I went out, stood next to the giant flat rock just outside the mosque, and watched the boy close the gates. But I was shivering. It was late fall, and my shirt was torn. The boy pondered my situation for a while, then went back inside and came out with the beautiful rug that I had been sleeping on.
“Here, wrap this around you. It will keep you warm.” He took the rope that separates the men from the women in the mosque, and tied it around the rug, so it wouldn’t fall off. Then he picked me up and stood me on the rock. “Hey boy, when someone comes and gets you, bring the carpet back. It’s on loan to the mosque. Don’t get it dirty. It’s very expensive.” He started to walk away when he had another thought. He ran back into the mosque and came back carrying, with great effort, a cauldron of the herb stew, which he clanked heavily next to me on the rock.
“Hey boy, for if they are late and you get hungry. Bring it back tomorrow. It’s on loan to the mosque,” he said, still huffing from his ordeal.
There was enough food in that vessel to keep “hey boy” alive till he was an old man. How long did he think it would take them to come get me? It occurred to me to ask to go with him, but he had vanished.
Tens of shooting stars later, I was still watching the night sky from inside my carpet when I heard movement outside. Hoping someone had finally come for me, I craned my neck to see.
I froze at what was there. Paws on the rock, sniffing my carpet, was the dust-colored dog I had injured. She was still limping from the wound I had given her.
“Chekhe!” I said unconvincingly. But this time, instead of leaping away, the dog bared her teeth and growled. That’s when I knew she wasn’t alone. There were two other dogs behind me, also baring their fangs and growling. I remembered Nader’s threat the night before about something happening to me this Ashura. That seed of a Jinn knew that this Ashura, I would be sacrificed at the altar of justice for my lack of mercy. I pulled my head way back inside the carpet, though I knew those long fangs could tear through carpet just as easily as through flesh.
I was waiting in terror of being torn up by wild dogs, wondering why it was taking them so long to attack, when I heard a loud clang and a yelpvfollowed by much excited shuffling. Sticking my head out of my carpet and peeking cautiously, I saw that the dogs had tipped my cauldron of sacrificial lamb and were vigorously slurping it off of each other and the rock. They ate and ate, tails wagging in frenzied disbelief, until the cauldron was shiny on the inside and the last spot of grease had been licked off the rock. After the feast, the dogs sniffed my carpet gratefully and trundled away like three fat elephants.
Scarcely had the dogs faded into the darkness when I saw three lights wobbling toward me. It was Nader and two of his companions on their bicycles.
As soon as they saw me Nader yelled, “Imbecile! We’ve been looking all over for you. It’s your funeral back home. Every one thinks you’re at the bottom of a well or in the belly of a dog. Your mom’s worried to death.”
For a while when I was surrounded by the vengeful dogs, I thought I would never see my mother’s face again. Now my only thought was what she would do to me for worrying her like this. “How did you find me?” I asked.
“Stupid kids always follow the dastehs on Ashura, so we checked all the mosques. Why are you rolled inside a rug?”
“It’s on loan to the mosque. I have to give it back tomorrow. The stew pot too.”
“The stew pot too.” Nader humphed absently as he unwrapped me. “My fault for expecting sense out of an imbecile?”
One of Nader’s friends balanced the cauldron on his head and mounted his bicycle. He wobbled forward while the other spotted him.
Nader folded my carpet and draped it over his handlebar. Then he sat me on the carpet and we flew home with the wind in my hair and a triumphant grin on Nader’s face. I thought I had defeated him when I had asked him to show me the Face that Mohammed saw on the night of his ascension. Instead I had made him even more powerful. This Jinn had now learned to penetrate the heart of a wish to find the true desire behind it.
As the gate to our house opened, I saw the Face. It was awash with tears of joy, longing, worry, anger, and relief, all made of pure love. My Jinn was letting me see for myself the climax of his Me’raj story: as happy as Mohammed was to look upon the Face, the Face was infinitely happier to see Mohammed. And I had mercilessly placed my foot on this orphaned Jinn, and had said, “No rock, this face is not for you.” In my happiness, I had found his sorrow. My third wish had been fulfilled to its true intent.
Even Muslim Jinn are notorious for their lack of patience with humans. Things could have gone a lot worse for me if the community of the Jinn hadn’t given me a chance to show them that at the bottom of all my wishes, there had been only the yearning to find compassion. I am certain that I owe this chance to the intercession of a relative, my rare and unusual cousin Nader, the Jinn.